Sunday, August 9, 2009

Moral distance

The Reclusive Leftist blogger "Dr Violet Socks" and commenters are outraged over the contrast at the media fuss over Prof. Gates being arrested on his own doorstep by a white cop compared to the lack of media fuss over a misogynist hate crime at a Pennsylvania gym that involved actual murders and maimings.

This is an entirely reasonable outrage.

But, it gets worse. Commentators have been picking up on the thinnest of Obama/racism elements and gliding over the hating & killing women bit. Which draws further ire from Reclusive Leftist blogger and commenters. Equally understandably.
I think Dr Violet Socks is right to say it is all about what said commentators think is important, and clearly actually murdered women are not the most important thing to said commentators, as is revealed by what they focus on. The common thread in such commentary is not simple misogyny, it is establishing moral distance. The Gates affair really worked as a media talking point because it allowed media commentators to establish their moral distance from the allegedly racially motivated cop—helped by the fact that Prof. Gates was clearly much more "people like them" than the cop. Indeed, much of the point of the commentary was precisely to express and establish their commonality with the highly educated Prof. Gates.

Moral distance comes out of any interaction between what issues you regard as important and how you place yourself. A libertarian blogger and commenters see the Gates affair as a likely manifestation of police arrogance. A conservative group blog sees it in terms of reaction against (US) liberal media commentators, racial grandstanding and in favour of a working cop “doing his job” upholding law and order. Anti-racism establishes especial virtue if you are white, and the racism in question is against blacks, since it is being morally concerned for other folk. Moreover, since it is about being agin other people’s attitudes, it is made for moral distance games. (And moral mascot games.)

So, focusing on one paragraph that expresses anti-Obama racism, or other scattered political comments, among pages of rantings against women in the killer's diary works to establish the killer’s moral distance from the commentators. The important thing about the killer becomes not that he was male but that he was racist. (And a "right wing extremist" who "hated the liberal media".) So, clearly not at all like them. A focus that fits in just fine with the preferred framings and talking points.

This is offensive and laughable at all levels, not least of which is that the murdered and maimed women I have seen identified were white (and none, as far I know, worked in the media—that would probably have made a difference). But it does the crucial thing, which is to establish the maximum moral distance between killer and commentators and the centrality of the moral concerns the commentators are most comfortable placing themselves by.

Of course, it also belittles the victims and the actual motives for the attack—which was a hate crime in a pure sense, since the victims were targeted simply for being members of a particular category of people. But, to such commentators, doing the dead and maimed women the elementary courtesy of understanding the crime-as-a-crime is much less important than projecting and protecting their sense of moral identity.

The misogyny comes in from the fact that said moral identity does not apparently encompass the murdered women. Women apparently do not cut it sufficiently as moral mascots, no matter how vilely murdered. A few useful passages in the diary are clearly much more morally engaging.

So, what does that say about the genuine human and moral content of waving the “racism” flag? Or is it as simple as that the rise of women in workplace and politics is a lot more threatening competition than black folk?


  1. Nice observations, Lorenzo. I myself have been amazed at the range of responses to the whole Gates affair, and in particular to the libertarians' immediate assumption that the police were acting arrogant. (Pretty rare for libertarians to side with Obama!)

  2. Thank you. The Gates affair has been a classic case of the framings dominating facts.

    I used to be sceptical of the concept of hate crime, until I realised they did have the element of seeking to cause fear among an entire category of people, not just the immediate victims.

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